When Nonfiction Becomes Too “Creative”

On February 22nd, the Associated Press reported that Charles Pellegrino, author of Last Train from Hiroshima told The New York Times that he was “likely duped” by Joseph Fuoco, a key source who claimed he flew on Necessary Evil, one of the Enola Gay’s escort planes for the bombing of Hiroshima. Fuoco, who died in 2008,  claimed he was a last-minute replacement for flight engineer James R. Corliss. The family of Corliss, who died in 1999, produced evidence that he was on the plane. In a statement issued by publisher Henry Holt, Pellegrino said that since learning of his error that his ”only concern has been to get the history right, in other words, to make sure that flight engineer James R. Corliss takes his rightful seat on that plane.” Stephen Rubin, Holt president and publisher, announced that a revised edition would be released that would eliminate all references to Fuoco and include an author’s note. To make the corrections, Holt said Pellegrino is interviewing the family of Corliss and surviving service men from the mission. The changes would affect fewer than five pages of text and one illustration.

A press release issued by the Veterans of the 509th Composite Group cites further factual errors: 

“Pellegrino falsely claims that a radiation accident took place in the Tinian Island assembly shed containing the Hiroshima-mission atomic bomb (nicknamed ‘Little Boy’) on the evening of August 4th that resulted in the death of a young (unnamed) civilian scientist. Author Pellegrino speculates this might explain why ‘even Tibbets became sick at the time of the Hiroshima mission, and was bed-ridden on Tinian during the Nagasaki mission.’ Enola Gay Navigator Major Theodore J. Van Kirk vehemently denies that claim. ”Tibbets was never sick during the Hiroshima mission and was never bed-ridden during the Nagasaki mission. This is utterly preposterous.’

In his book, author Pellegrino claims Los Alamos scientist Luis Alvarez participated in the final assembly of the Little Boy atomic bomb. He states that a portion of the uranium assembly had ‘surged long enough to reduce the weapon’s efficiency’ to the point of it acting like a ‘dud’ when dropped on Hiroshima. Nothing could have been further from the truth. According to a Los Alamos document in the National Archives, all of the uranium and the four initiators had been inserted into Little Boy on July 30th (five days before the falsely alleged August 4th accident) and ‘no further handling of these parts was necessary.’ While the nuclear components were not touched again, the bomb casing was opened after that date only to install fresh batteries just before it was rolled out of the assembly building on August 5th and placed inside the Enola Gay.

Retired scientist Richard Malenfant devoted most of his long Los Alamos career studying not only the Little Boy atomic bomb, but its effects on the residents of Hiroshima. Referring to what he had read, Malenfant wrote ”The observations regarding Little Boy and the Hiroshima mission are ridiculous fabrications and attempts to revise history. They don’t even make interesting science fiction. The radiation effects described in the book are generally not factual.’ He added, ‘There is no merit in Pellegrino’s work.’

Mr. Pellegrino claims in his book that a person named Joseph Fuoco flew on a B-29 escort plane, named Necessary Evil that was to take photographs of the Hiroshima explosion. He writes that Fuoco, at the last minute, was ‘transferred from his beloved, battle-hardened plane Bad Penny’ and replaced Flight Engineer Sgt. James R. Corliss aboard Necessary Evil by orders of Colonel Costalati.

The official records containing the names of the over 1,800 members of the 509th Composite Group show that no person named Joseph Fuoco was ever a part of the 509th much less on the airplane. There is no record of a ‘Colonel Costalati’ being present on Tinian in connection with the 509th nor does the name Joseph Fuoco appear on the Bad Penny crew lists. Any last minute crew changes on Necessary Evil would have been recommended to Colonel Tibbets by the Airplane Commander Capt. George W. Marquardt, whom author Pellegrino also misspelled ‘Marquart’ throughout this book.”

Holt has now announced it will cease printing and shipping copies because of further questions about Pellegrino’s sources. A Holt spokesperson stated that there were questions whether the Reverend John MacQuitty, a priest quoted in the book, and another priest, a Father Mattias, named by Pellegrino, actually existed. The publisher also has questions about the legitimacy of Pellegrino’s doctoral degree. The publisher is offering refunds to retailers and wholesalers for the book. The company printed approximately 18,000 copies of the book.

How could this happen? Pellegrino’s credibility as a researcher has been questioned before. He is either appallingly inept or pathologically dishonest. In this case, it is apparently the latter. Pellegrino’s first response to the scandal was that he was duped by Fuoco. Some simple fact-checking on Pellegrino’s part would have revealed that what Fuoco told him was false. Holt’s statement that Pellegrino was interviewing surviving members of the mission to make the corrections is laughable. Why didn’t Pellegrino do that in the first place as part of his research? Now that further factual errors and fabrications have come to light, Pellegrino claim that he is the victim of a fraudulent source carries no weight.

What responsibility does the publisher have for this mess? How far should a publisher go in fact-checking and verifying an author’s sources? Given Pellegrino’s past credibility problems, should there have been greater diligence in double-checking facts and sources in the editorial process?

Reviews were universal in praising the book. Writing for The New York Times, Dwight Garner praised the book as “sober and authoritative.” In The Washington Post, Joseph Kannon called the book “the most powerful and detailed [account] I have ever read.” A starred review in Publisher’s Weekly states: “Pellegrino dissects the complex political and military strategies that went into the atomic detonations and the untold suffering heaped on countless Japanese civilians, weaving all of the book’s many elements into a wise, informed protest against any further use of these terrible weapons.” In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews calls the book: “Enormously painful to read, but absolutely essential to do so.”  The review outlets cannot be blamed for being duped. When a reviewer receives a nonfiction book from reputable publisher like Holt, he or she should be able to reasonably assume that the author is reliable and that the content has been properly vetted in the editorial process.

The argument can be made that reviewers of nonfiction books should have to be experts on the subject matter so that factual errors and questionable sources can be more easily identified.  It would be possible to do this for reviews that appear in scholarly journals, but it would be much more difficult for publications like Booklist, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. Reviewers for those publications are typically librarians who can easily verify information if they suspect factual errors or questionable sources but mostly likely lack the specialized content knowledge to recognize the problems.

It is interesting to see wh0 contributed the blurbs of praise for the book jacket. None of them are historians or authors who have written about nuclear weapons. One blurb is by Bill Schutt, a bat biologist with the American Museum of Natural History and author of  a book about blood-feeding creatures called Dark Banquet. Schutt hails Pellegrino’s book as a “definitive account” that “sets the record straight about what actually happened.” Is a bat biologist qualified to praise the book as a “definitive account” of the Hiroshima bombing? Apparently not. Other blurb contributors include a NOAA ocean explorer, the founder and president of something called Droycon Bioconcepts, and motion picture director and producer James Cameron.

According to his web site, Pellegrino, who identifies himself as a “forensic archaeologist,” has been a “scientific consultant” to Cameron for the past 12 years. Cameron had optioned the book as part of developing a film about the Hiroshima bombing.

This is not the first time that there have been problems like this with nonfiction books and it certainly will not be the last. I purchased Last Train from Hiroshima at my local independent bookstore before the stories about Pellegrino’s dishonesty broke.  As an author of a book about the development and use of the first atomic bombs, I am interested in reading anything published on the subject. I have not gotten around to reading the book. I could return it to my bookstore for a refund, but I’m thinking I may hold on to it. When I do presentations about nonfiction writing, I can use it as an example of what NOT to do.

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 10:59 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great post! I’m appalled that the publisher didn’t do more to verify Pellegrino’s work, and angry that the author may have intentionally misled readers of his supposedly “nonfiction” work.

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